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Pres. Hinckley's Leadership Celebrated as LDS Faithful Gather for Conference

Pres. Hinckley's Leadership Celebrated as LDS Faithful Gather for Conference

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Ten years ago, the membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints raised their hands in silent support for Gordon B. Hinckley as the newly ordained "seer and revelator" and 15th president of the church.

"He is our prophet today. He is wise. He is caring. He speaks for the Lord. His is the voice to which we should now respond," Robert D. Hales of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said at the time.

As the LDS faithful opened their 175th annual general conference here this weekend, Hinckley -- along with First Presidency counselors Thomas Monson and James Faust -- have quietly marked their March 12 anniversary shepherding the church through a time of unprecedented growth around the world.

More than 100,000 people were expected to attend the five sessions of the two-day semiannual conference. Millions have access to the proceedings through television, satellite and radio broadcasts, translated into 75 languages.

On Hinckley's watch, the Mormon Church has grown to include more than 12 million members, with 26,200 congregations, and 60,000 missionaries around the world. Also in that time some 51 million copies of the faith's primary text, the Book of Mormon, has been distributed around the world, published in 175 different languages.

Hinckley, Monson and Faust noted those accomplishments, along with the creation of the church's perpetual education fund and the Latter-day Saint Charities, including their donation of $641 million in humanitarian assistance.

But Monson said his belief is that the triumvirate will be best known for building dozens of small temples around the world and allowing church members to perform the sacred temple ceremonies that are so central to LDS beliefs.

Monson credited Hinckley with the temple initiative and called him "a man for his time."

"He's a man of vision. He's a man that does not take counsel from his fears," Monson told reporters on the eve of the 10-year anniversary. "He plans, he prepares, he prays and then with that prophetic influence with comes to him and which he then emanates, we move forward with faith."

Church-watchers both in and outside of the LDS faith say Hinckley's first 10 years have proved him a leader both pragmatic and insightful, albeit one who predictably protects his church when he sees the need and avoids some of the tougher topics, like polygamy, homosexuality and the role of women in the church.

Media-savvy, but warm and personable, Hinckley has been able to connect with LDS members in a way that is authoritative, but not off-putting.

"Ordinary Latter-day Saints honor and revere any person who is a prophet of the church," said Philip Barlow, a lifetime LDS church member and former Utah resident who is a professor of theological studies at Hanover College in Hanover, Ind. But he said Hinckley can deliver sober messages with a touch of humor "in a way that wins the attachment of the saints."

"I think when you look at the great leaders of the church, President Hinckley will certainly be up there," said Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, who is considered among the foremost non-Mormon LDS scholars. "One of the things that has been a very real distinctive contribution of President Hinckley has been the way the church has grown but has maintained its identity."

Central to that identity is the performing of temple ceremonies, something which "is in possession of only the Latter-day Saints and it gives them something very special," Shipps said.

The construction of 72 new temples in 21 countries during Hinckley's presidency has allowed more members to perform this important work.

Shipps also credits Hinckley with fostering a broader understanding of the church to mainstream Christianity. Interviews with the likes of Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" and CNN's Larry King have give Hinckley a chance to educate the broader Christian world -- opportunities Hinckley has sought out, Shipps notes.

"He's been trying to legitimize Mormonism as a form of Christianity, but not just an idiosyncratic form of Protestantism," she said. "It's Christianity plus."

Hinckley has been fairly successful in that work, said Barlow, who finds some evidence of that success in what he calls the thaw between the church and historians, who were once only at odds.

There is also the growing legitimacy Mormonism has among religious scholars, Barlow said. Yale University, for example recently held a conference on the faith and Claremont College in California is considering adding a chair of Mormon studies to its School of Religion -- the first such program outside of Utah.

"That's a very positive symptom for the church," Barlow said. "But it will raise an ongoing series of questions and a broadening deepening set of questions."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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